Did Tamils Always Paint Themselves Into A Corner?

By S. Sivathasan –

S. Sivathasan

A Harmful Outgrowth

If the answer is yes, for how long have we done so? For as long as eight decades and more, some would say. When did the painting start? With elections to the State Council in 1931 and the Jaffna Boycott. The initiative and organization were by the Youth Congress of Jaffna. The mindset which originated then evolved subsequently and has permeated Tamil consciousness ever since. Deriving greater strength   through surgical intervention to remove this malignant growth is good for future wellbeing. It did not fail to raise its plaintive head even as late as September 2013, at the Provincial Council Elections. We Tamils require a great deal of introspection to identify our repetitive ways and to wrest ourselves from the boycott mindset. Dispassionate analysis of the stands we have taken and the negative results we have obtained will have to go alongside.


Two strong factors fueled the boycott of the State Council elections. The abolition of communal representation which reduced the strength of Tamil membership in the Council compared to a might have been under the previous system of weighted representation had earned the ire of many a Tamil. In this receptive atmosphere the Youth Movement in Jaffna with an emergent leadership had a credible political complaint. TheDonoughmore Reforms did not go far enough towards independence was their stance. Such a position certainly flowed from the reactions of the Indian National Congress to failed reform missions in their country.

Out of Sync

In India, ten years prior to Donoughmore Commission, was the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms which resulted in the Government of India Act of 1919, granting only partial self- government. To Indians who had agitated vigorously for full freedom it was a far cry from independence, dashing India’s expectations of purna swaraj. The Jaffna Youth Movement picked up its threads rather idealistically from India. How mighty was India’s fight for Independence? Around 1957, Nehru had said “Independence came too early for India. We did not fight for our freedom. We never had a ‘Long March’ as in China”. Did we Tamils fight prior to 1931 to deserve full independence and for the British to grant it with a mere boycott? In two years the un-wisdom of the step was realized and Tamils demanded elections and representation. Was it realistic pursuit of politics to permit this pervasive mindset to continue to date?

We failed to elect our representatives in 1931. There was however mid-course correction in 1934 and 4 members were elected in that year including GG Ponnambalam. Following on the second State Council election in 1936 was the formation of the Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers. Tamils as well as other minorities were excluded totally. Whether they wished a share in governance or wanted it or yearned for it is not clear. By bringing forth a Pan-Sinhalese entity to preside over the country’s governance, the majority community forfeited an opportunity to build bridges for national consolidation. The minorities got a credible handle to demand balanced representation and they got the ablest spokesman in GGP in 1938, to argue before Governor Caldecott. Yet the day was lost.

Whatever the thinking or the motivation of the Premier, his offer of two portfolios to Tamils at independence was not taken kindly to by the Tamils. All actions by the government since then proved the native intelligence of the Tamils to be correct. Then as well as now we Tamils stand at a dilemmatic position. No rational or sensible being can call their decisions wrong. Nor can one say there wasn’t any error on their part. It is not desired to touch on all points as the reading can be weary and turn morbid. Suffice to refer to a few.

Persisting Shadows

The July Elections of 1960, preceded by some understanding with the Tamil side was followed with a 10 member cabinet by Srimavo. From independence to that day the size of the Cabinet was maintained at 14 or 15. Who will say that the figure was now pegged at 10, because a 11th was not forthcoming? The obvious inference then and conclusion thereafter was that 4 berths were reserved for the Tamil side apparently for a fresh beginning. Response however was rejection which only connoted coming confrontation. The relations that followed are known well. The opportunity for Tamils to work from within was lost in favour of criticizing from without. It made good reading for plebians among Tamils. The Muslim Minister of Education laid the foundation for his community to reach great heights years later. The first 5 years 1960 – 65, were followed by the second spell 1970 – 77. The community was placed well on its way for a Himalayan ascent. Education with fingers on all relevant switches like school development, recruitment, promotions and scholarships, accomplished it. We Tamils continued to prepare our catalogue of complaints and polished up our litany of grievances.

The boycott mental frame crept into the North – East Provincial Council election of November 1988. The damage of the morning was undone from mid-noon and the situation was salvaged. An year of negative action with even threats of violence by the militant leadership put paid to even that. In the general elections that came soon after, ubiquitous Boycott made its presence felt and for once, members were elected to Parliament with 4 and 5 votes. Though we railed against them for being unrepresentative, they did their damage to the community. The last Boycott was the deadliest of all, ushering in a regime in 2005 placing the Tamils in an irretrievable ditch. The Boycott mentality stalked ever since, but strong TNA leadership thwarted its reentry at the Northern Provincial Council election of 2013.

Hard Headedness

Many and varied have been the ways in which we painted ourselves into an ever diminishing corner. In 1991 was an imprudent act which marked the beginning of the end of our political space. The world  saw its inevitable disappearance in 2009. Thiruvalluvar sanely advises, “Before venturing forth, factor into your calculations the value of allies”. The wisdom of consolidating strategic space was lost on the un-wisdom of impetuosity. History was blazoning to the world the wisdom of the Chinese Communists. In 1936, their most powerful adversary Chiang Kai Shek was caught by them. In the deliberations that followed immediately thereon, the leadership decided to release him. Consensual judgment demanded that for a continuing war, releasing him would expand their political and military space tactically and strategically. Chiang was released and the KMT at war with the communists for 8 years, continued to battle them for 14 more years. Communists were eventual victors. This was political sagacity.

After painting ourselves into a corner with help from quality painters in Philadelphia and having lost the remaining nook also five years back, where do we Tamils stand now? Virtually where we stood. Progress at Geneva and at Delhi certainly denote some advance. So do solid resistance in London, Washington, Toronto, New York, European capitals and Australian cities. The Diaspora is developing a persona and groping towards parallel platforms.

Where change is desired most is in accepting the TNA as the legitimate political formation of the Tamils and their accredited spokesperson. The diaspora to operate in tandem with the TNA and the latter being assured of its primacy.

Fresh Beginning

For the above formulation to prevail in the country, to have acceptance abroad and for recognition in Delhi, much cerebral work is needed and it has to be made public. At 3 per lakh, around a hundred Tamils of standing should surface. TNA should perform midwifery to make this happen and acknowledge their credentials for public information. Today just 3 are in the public eye and in the forefront. SL Tamils speaking with one voice have to be at meaningful engagement with TN Tamils. All of them will have to develop integral thinking on political, economic, educational, developmental and investment issues. Are we anywhere there? Nowhere near is what I would assert. To quote a case in point, when agriculture is discussed, many and more so the young talk about primitive methods which lead only to subsistence agriculture to satisfy a self-sufficient village economy. The TNA has to take on the leadership role to reach for modern compulsions. What are they? Theorize, Organize, Lead. The 100 strong as the intellectual avant garde should be the buttress to the political leadership.


As of now even as land expropriation looms large, other issues of concern should not go by default. The area that suffered most in the war is education. This sphere demands the greatest attention now. Denial of places well merited by the youth in the university system continues to vex them. At this point of time with goodwill developing among Tamils in SL and in TN, it must be turned to advantage in the education sector. For 42 years we have railed against marginalization with no positive good being done to the student community.

1188What was destroyed by state malevolence as also through societal negligence over decades would require as much time for rebuilding. What is paramount is to bring to life the structure of values which was the bed rock and sheet anchor of educational priority among most Tamils. It is not suggested that Tamils were or are unique among all people. There is a Tamil saying, “rectitude even in poverty”. Such a value certainly underpinned much of their thinking and approach on life a 100 years ago and later. A Tamil poetess said, “Learning is great even when driven to penury”. We see such effort now too.

Whatever be the goals targeted or objectives to be realized, what is to be marveled at locally and abroad is the unrelenting pursuit of academic achievement for professional excellence. What is more is that favourable results are scored more abroad than locally. Opportunities and the lack of them explain the variance. Quite a number of expatriates have ventured to narrow the deficit without any song or dance.

McNamara in his memoirs speaking about his primary school days in San Francisco, refers to the great effort of Indian and Chinese students sacrificing play for study over weekends. This was 90 years and more ago and yet persisting. Expatriate Tamils have been in this bandwagon for over 3 decades and outcomes are astonishing. “Those with eyes transfixed on their vocation, will not ever mind discomfort or treat hunger as of any consequence. Nor are they given to rest or sleep”. Even now the writer notes where he resides, Indian and Chinese children age 4 upwards being taken in overwhelming numbers to libraries by their parents. Back home parents have the same obligation. Time is plentiful if one takes President Obama’s simple homely advice “Parents should know when to stop the TV”. At age 9, his Father showed him when.

External Assistance

With this build up where do we go? As if by second nature, Tamils factored in mainly Tamil Nadu outside Ceylon for University education. A single university in Ceylon in the forties to sixties offered very limited places. With a sea change adversely affecting the ‘opportunity environment’ available to Tamil students, unprecedented, unconventional and extraordinary strategies are now needed. A very workable and potent programme is to lay a pipeline to Tamil Nadu to draw on their teaching resources. What prevents students of promise to get there on their own? Finances. Relentless disorder of the 30 year war has deprived the whole Tamil community of assets and surpluses. An immediate programme drawn up by some universities of Tamil Nadu to accommodate a few hundred students each year can set the education train moving again. To make it happen a little subsidy element may become necessary at the beginning. However small or simple a proposal it needs a push. If the Chief Minister and the Minister of Education of the Northern Provincial Council set about it, then it can find traction and reach its desired goal.

It has become necessary or even compulsive to end wailing that we have no more space to paint. We have to weave a new canvas, cast our net far and wide to fetch our paint and brush and start painting afresh. Before we put our brush to canvas we should be certain of our conception of what the whole painting will be like. The landscape must suit the climate, the tree must fit the climate, the foliage the tree and the fruit the foliage. It is for such concurrence in a composite picture that all our studies are needed. It is believed it will be accomplished.

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